Landmark decision of Superior Court of Justice strikes down parts of Ontario's anti-panhandling law

3 minute read
02 April 2024


Fair Change v. His Majesty the King in Right of Ontario, 2024 ONSC 1895

On April 2, 2024, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice published a landmark decision which struck down parts of Ontario's long-criticized anti-panhandling law. 

Fair Change Community Services ("Fair Change") is a student-run and lawyer-supervised pro bono legal clinic in Toronto which supports street-involved individuals to defend their provincial offence charges.

Fair Change challenged the constitutionality of Ontario's Safe Streets Act, arguing that the legislation, enacted in 1999, violated several provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including: freedom of expression; the right not to be deprived of life, liberty and security of the person except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice; the presumption of innocence; the right to be free of cruel and unusual treatment and punishment; and the right to equality for individuals with mental health illnesses and addictions, Indigenous people, LGBTQ people, youth, and individuals in receipt of social assistance.

The case was heard before Ontario Superior Court Justice Robert Centa, who delivered the decision in favour of Fair Change, deeming several provisions of Ontario's law as unconstitutional.

Justice Centa's ruling concluded that the ban on panhandling in public places, including near ATMs, transit stops, and public toilets, unjustifiably violated freedom of expression. The decision recognized the social value of solicitation and emphasized that the mere presence of individuals soliciting donations does not pose a danger or impediment to public safety. Further, Justice Centa struck down provisions that deemed various behaviours – such as panhandling while intoxicated – to be "aggressive" solicitation.

In his decision, Justice Centa acknowledged the important work of Fair Change's student volunteers, as well as its founder, Joanna Nefs, writing: "Its work is important, recognized in the mainstream press and legal community, and of enormous credit to its founder and its volunteers. The evidence filed on this application demonstrates that Fair Change has provided significant assistance to its clients and furthered their access to justice."

Chris Hummel, a lawyer in Gowling WLG's Environmental, Energy, and Indigenous Law groups, served as pro bono counsel for Fair Change.

NOT LEGAL ADVICE. Information made available on this website in any form is for information purposes only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. You should not rely on, or take or fail to take any action based upon this information. Never disregard professional legal advice or delay in seeking legal advice because of something you have read on this website. Gowling WLG professionals will be pleased to discuss resolutions to specific legal concerns you may have.